According to the constitution of the PC(USA), “Giving has always been a mark of Christian commitment and discipleship. The ways in which a believer uses God’s gifts of material goods, personal abilities, and time should reflect a faithful response to God’s self-giving in Jesus Christ and Christ’s call to minister to and share with others in the world” (W-5.504). In the Old Testament, God commanded the people to present a tenth of their wealth as an offering to God. There is a notable shift in the New Testament, as leaders in the early church, heeding Christ’s teachings and self-offering, focused on the need of disciplined support and encouraged lavish giving. Both the Old and New Testaments advocate generous giving to meet the needs of the poor. Today we recognize that God calls us to be disciplined and generous in our giving. The Bible also speaks to being generous with more than just our time, talent, and treasure.
The apostle Paul, in a letter to his friend and co-worker, Philemon, writes, “I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ” (v. 6, NLT). In the context of Paul’s letter, the concept of generosity is sacrificial and deeply personal. Paul’s appeal to Philemon’s faithful generosity regards Philemon’s relationship to a man named Onesimus. Based on the letter, it is clear that Philemon feels that Onesimus has wronged him in some way. Paul appeals to Philemon to receive Onesimus as “a beloved brother.” Paul continues by offering to pay Philemon for any wrongs or debts Onesimus owes. In this way, Paul calls Philemon to show the generosity of a humble spirit and love, while Paul himself demonstrates generosity of trust and resources.
This brief letter teaches us a lot about generosity. It teaches us to be mindful of all the good things we have in Christ. It teaches us that generosity includes wealth and time, and that it also includes us being generous with the “high ground,” giving up the need to always be in the right. Finally, it teaches us that justice requires restitution, and sometimes being generous means that we need to pay restitution on our sister or brother’s behalf. We do not know how Philemon responded, but we know he was called upon to be generous. That call is for us, too.